Even if you don’t know exactly what vibrato is, you have certainly heard it. Vibrato is a popular method with singers of opera, classical music, pop music, and every genre in between. Fittingly, the term comes from the Italian word for “vibrate.” The practice can make a musical phrase sound more dramatic and expressive and allow a singer to sustain a note over a long period of time. It is easy to simulate the sound, but true vibrato is a learned skill. Luckily, most singers can learn how to sing vibrato with good technique and practice.
Vibrato is a type of singing in which your voice quickly alternates between two adjacent pitches. It is most commonly used when you sustain a note over a long period of time. Because the alternation is so subtle, the listener only hears the written note, so you sound completely in tune with the music. Sustaining one note while remaining on pitch is quite difficult. Singing in vibrato helps you achieve this effect without straining your voice.
The first reason singers use vibrato is because it sounds good. It gives your voice a warm, rich feel. However, a good sound isn’t the only benefit of singing in vibrato.
When you sing in vibrato, you are able to sing louder and with less strain on your voice. In fact, until the invention of the modern microphone, most professional singers used vibrato. It allows you to be heard over a band or an orchestra and to project clearly in a large room.
Healthy Vocal Apparatus
Singing loudly in a strained voice can do harm to your larynx over time. If you damage your vocal chords, your voice may become weak and raspy and even require surgery to repair. Many singers with damaged voices undergo therapy with voice coaches. The therapy often includes learning to incorporate vibrato so as to regain their voices and prevent injury from happening again.
Sustaining a note is not easy. It requires excellent tone and breath work. Vibrato can mask this difficulty, helping a singer who would not otherwise be able to hold a note sound on pitch throughout.
True vibrato comes naturally. If you find that you are forcing it, it is likely not vibrato, but an impostor type of singing technique.
- Wobble occurs when the variation between the two pitches is too large. The vibrato effect sounds too slow and too wide. It is usually caused by poor breathing technique or not focusing in the tone.
- Tremolo is the opposite of wobble, the notes coming too fast and too close together. It is most often caused by too much pressure on the tongue at the back of the throat.
- Trillo is very fast and staccato. Many people think it sounds like the bleating of a goat – not exactly desirable in a singing voice. This is also caused by poor breath control.
If it isn’t already clear, proper breath technique is key to producing vibrato. It is important to learn how to control your diaphragm and optimize your air flow. Here are some exercises you can do everyday to improve your breath.
Breathe in with your diaphragm. Your shoulders should stay lowered and your belly should expand. Use your teeth and your tongue to make a hissing sound, like a snake, and expel the air from your body. Be sure to keep a steady pace and volume.
Perform the hissing exercise, but hiss louder and faster than before. This increases the pressure on your abdominal muscles and your diaphragm, training them to deal with more tension.
This time, make several short hissing sounds in short succession throughout your exhale. Ideally, they will sound bouncy and light. This exercise improves your diaphragm’s flexibility so that it can support you through faster and more difficult runs.
With regular practice, each of these breathing exercises will become easier. It is important to keep them up even when you feel you have mastered them. You want to keep your singing muscles strong.
Tension is the enemy of the singer. A tense mouth can restrict air flow and prevent you from producing good tone. There are several exercises that can help relax your muscles and prepare you to sing to your best ability. Perform each one for several minutes every day.
This exercise relaxes the jaw. Part your lips just slightly and pretend to chew. The motion should be gentle and subtle. Then close your lips and hum a few different notes while you continue the chewing.
Trilling relaxes the tongue. Rest your tongue on the bottom of your mouth and touch your lower front teeth with the tip. Inhale deeply and trill on the exhale. Hold the trill as long as possible. After you repeat this a few times, use your voice to trill along an ascending and then a descending scale.
Flying an Airplane
Have you ever made an airplane noise with your mouth to make a baby laugh? Use that technique to relax your lips. Take a deep breath and then make that familiar “brrr” sound with your lips. Hold onto it as long as you can.
You may want to know what vibrato singing feels like so you can identify when you have achieved it. You can simulate vibrato with these steps.
- Place your hands slightly above your belly button. They should rest on the soft part of your tummy, just under the spot where your ribs come together.
- Sing a note. It can be any note as long as it is in your comfort zone and you can easily sustain it. You don’t want to strain yourself here.
- Gently press your belly with your hands as you sing the note. Push in and out quickly, about three cycles per second.
Can you hear and feel your voice wavering? That’s how proper vibrato feels.
Now that you have improved your air flow, relaxed your muscles, and learned how vibrato feels, it’s time to put your voice to work. Here are five simple steps to start singing in vibrato.
While it’s important to practice your relaxation techniques regularly, it’s also important to perform them right before you begin singing. Straining your voice will only make singing in vibrato more difficult. Release all the tension in your body. Stretch your back and neck. Shake out your arms and legs. Loosen up your tongue and jaw. When you relax your muscles, vibrato comes more naturally.
Keep Good Posture
Standing correctly also improves your air flow. Keep your head, neck, and spine in a straight line. If you require sheet music, place it at eye level so you don’t need to bend your head to read it. Put one foot in front of the other, just slightly, and stay steady.
Yawning opens the back of your throat. Try to keep that sensation while singing. An open throat enhances air flow, which gives you a rich tone and a fuller range.
Use Your Diaphragm
Your breathing practice comes in handy here. Take a deep breath into your belly and sing your notes, letting them cycle in front of you. The vibrato should occur on its own, without forcible effort.
Make sure you are breathing at a steady, even pace. Uncontrolled breathing can result in one of the impostor breathing techniques mentioned above, not true vibrato.
If you go through these steps and feel like you are still forcing your vibrato, don’t panic. Go back and make sure you are performing the first few steps correctly. If that doesn’t help, focus on your breathing exercises again and work on improving your tone. Failure to sing in vibrato on your first try doesn’t mean you’ll never get there. You just need to concentrate on the basics and build your way up to singing.
If you’ve been practicing on your own for a while and still don’t feel like you’re making progress, enlist some help. A vocal coach can evaluate your technique, identify specific issues, and teach you additional exercises to improve your vibrato. Online singing courses are a great resource if there are no coaches in your area or you need a more flexible class schedule.
Vibrato is a wonderful singing technique that sounds pleasant to the ears and preserves your voice so you can keep singing for years to come. Like any new skill, it takes time and a lot of practice to achieve a proper vibrato sound. Perform your breathing and relaxation exercises every day. If you skip the basic building blocks, you’ll only prevent your own progress. Most importantly, don’t give up. With dedication and effort, you’ll start singing in vibrato naturally. Having another tool in your singing belt will help you expand your musical range, allowing you to sing pieces you previously wouldn’t have dreamed of attempting.